HOMER -- While the recent storm that left hundreds of lower Kenai Peninsula residents without power for up to a week cracked many dead spruce near power lines, it didn't come close to taking down all the remnants of the spruce bark beetle infestation.
Homer Electric Association spokesperson Joe Gallagher said thousands of trees are still endangering main lines.
During the past two years, the electric company has worked to diminish that number, spending more than $1.5 million of its own money to remove dead trees near power lines on East End Road.
When the December storms kicked up, the preventative measure paid off, Gallagher said.
"This work definitely made a difference during the last storm," he said. "The outages that occurred (in the East End Road area) would have been much worse had it not been for the tree removal work that was done."
HEA received $1 million in federal funding last May, passed through the Kenai Peninsula Borough, for tree removal, and has three crews cutting on the lower peninsula.
As a result of the storm, a crew that was working on the northern portion of the Sterling Highway has now moved to North Fork Road, Gallagher said.
"Because of the situation that occurred last month, Homer Electric has reprioritized its tree removal schedule and will immediately reposition a contractor to the North Fork Road to begin the removal of trees that pose a danger to the lines," he said.
Gallagher said the contractor will begin working on the Anchor Point end of the North Fork Road and work south.
"Landowners have been very helpful in giving us permission to go on their property to cut the danger trees," Gallagher said. "The contractor hopes to be able to complete the work in the North Fork Area in about three months, depending on what break-up conditions are like."
It's estimated that some 30,000 beetle-killed trees will need to be removed.
Crews will cut all trees large enough to hit a power line on main roads as well as side streets, Gallagher said, but landowners are responsible for clearing any trees from lines running from the road to their homes.
Gallagher said dead spruce were the main cause of power outages in this and many recent storms for HEA. Other factors, such as the age of equipment and ice and snow were responsible for only minor outages.
Gallagher said in instances where it is possible, lines are spliced several times, a fix that is much quicker than replacing the line.
"Under normal circumstances, the number of splices do not result in the line being more susceptible to breaking," he said. "Repairing a broken line with a splice can be done much faster, and at a lower cost, than replacing the line."
In repairing the damage from the December storms, HEA installed more than 500 splices and more than five miles of new line.
Though some might suggest burying lines would solve HEA's problems, Gallagher said putting lines underground isn't cost effective.
Instead, Gallagher said, HEA has focused on making the lines it has as resistant to snow and ice damage as possible, using steel-reinforced lines, and restringing the lines so they run side-by-side instead of one on top of the other. When the lines are stacked, Gallagher said, snow can weigh them down, and when that snow releases, it can cause lines to slap into each other, causing outages.
Gallagher said for the time being, tree removal is HEA's No. 1 priority, and by next winter, the risk of losing power because of trees falling on lines should be minimized.
"The chances of system damage like we experienced in late December will be significantly reduced," he said. "It's impossible to guarantee that there won't be power interruptions due to a fallen or blown-down tree, but when one occurs, it will likely be an isolated outage, not the widespread event that we just experienced."
Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News.
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